ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES by Emma Hooper
Kirkus Star

ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Hooper’s debut is a novel of memory and longing and desires too long denied. 

On Saskatchewan’s Great Plains grew 15 Vogel children. When Otto Vogel was still a child, half-orphaned Russell joined the brood. The Great Depression burned on, crops failed, and schooling was casual. One of the teachers was Etta, no older than Otto and Russell. World War II came. Otto left. Russell, broken leg improperly mended, could not. As Hooper’s shifting narrative opens, now-83-year-old Etta awakens, intending to walk to Canada’s east coast, leaving a brief note for her husband, Otto. She carries a bit of food, a rifle, and a note of her identity and home. To a Cormac McCarthy–like narrative—sans quotation marks, featuring crisp, concise conversations—Hooper adds magical realism: Etta’s joined by a talking coyote she names James, who serves as guide and sounding board. With Etta absent, Otto begins baking from her recipes, his companion a guinea pig, always silent. Soon Otto becomes obsessed with constructing a menagerie of papier-mâché wildlife. Russell, shy lifelong bachelor and Etta’s wartime lover, follows her, finds her, only to hear her urge him to seek his own quest "because you want to and you’re allowed to and you can. You could have if you wanted to enough"—the novel's thematic heart. Russell disappears into flashbacks. Hooper reveals more of Etta and Otto in letters exchanged during World War II, where Otto by turns is terrified, sickened and enthralled. Otto marries Etta on return, a less than perfect union shadowed by damaged Otto striking out at Etta. With beautifully crafted descriptions—derelict farm machinery as "gently stagnant machines"—Hooper immerses herself in characters, each shaped by the Depression. The book ends with sheer poetry, stunning and powerful, multiple short chapters where identities and dreams, longings and memories shift and cling to one character and then another within the "long loop of existence."

A masterful near homage to Pilgrim’s Progress: souls redeemed through struggle.

Pub Date: Jan. 20th, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4767-5567-0
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2014




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